The American religious experience has a long tradition of using scriptural metaphors and few were as adept at using these metaphors as Martin Luther King Jr. His speeches are awash in applications of scriptural language and events to the needs of his day. His people were chosen Israel being brought to the promised land. Stripped of the misconceptions that overwhelmed the hearing of my parents and grandparents and of Mormon culture in his time, to me, who has only heard his words in years following his death, King’s metaphors, message and his delivery of that message are communicated in an awesome grandeur that make it almost impossible to not be caught in his message, in his movement and in his justice.
Unfortunately, they may be a tad dramatic for General Conference, at least in our current Mormon culture.
Still, it seems to me that we can do more with the scriptural metaphors at our disposal. In comparison to Martin Luther King, we don’t use enough metaphor in our discourses and speeches. This is especially sad because of the rich resources we have available — we have the Book of Mormon.
Let me give an example of what I mean: Samuel the Lamanite.
Samuel is, of course, an actual person, a prophet in the Book of Mormon. But he is also a character, a metaphor that can be used to describe a lot of our world today. Here’s a few thoughts on what Samuel the Metaphor might mean:
- Samuel represents overcoming tradition. Because he has become righteous out of a tradition that has been evil, Samuel is a metaphor for rising out of evil, for overcoming the influence of the culture that surrounds us from birth.
- Samuel represents ministry in the face of adversity. Our iconic image of Samuel is Arnold Frieberg’s painting of him standing on the walls of a Nephite city, preaching despite the arrows in flight headed towards him.
- Samuel represents overcoming racism. It occurs to me that the story of Samuel the Lamanite could be read as a racial story. The Lamanites had a different skin color, and lived apart from those of white skin color. It is possible that the historical record available to them led the Nephites to look down on the Lamanites as “evil.” When Samuel the Lamanite began to preach, the Nephites ignored him, and even the few righteous Nephites didn’t bother to include his writings among those of the prophets. It took Christ’s intervention to have his words included.
I’d love to hear what other concepts Samuel represents in your experience. Probably the strangest one for me came from a Spanish-speaking member I corresponded with who thought that Samuel the Lamanite was a “shameful and reproachful name like that of cursed and marked beings, especially among English-Speaking Mormonism.” (my rough translation from Spanish). I’ve since asked many other Spanish-speaking members and haven’t had that reaction from anyone. I’m having a hard time seeing this view as anything but a reaction to the “Lamanite” surname. Does anyone have an idea that might explain this?
Of course, there are other metaphors and symbols from the Book of Mormon that we do use. We use the Liahona, the Iron Rod, the Golden Plates, the Sword of Laban, the Great and Spacious Building, etc., etc. Book of Mormon stories are preached from the pulpit, and the metaphors there do have power. But I think Samuel is unusual.
As I’ve looked at Samuel the Lamanite, I see potential as a metaphor that seems very significant. I especially like the idea that he representgs overcoming racism. In a sense, Samuel the Lamanite is the Martin Luther King of the Book of Mormon — the figure that brings his people to cultural respect, who brings them into the promised land.
And for today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I think its a great metaphor to meditate on.